NPJ Book Review: Citizens, A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama

Citizens, A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama (1989)

“In some depressing sense, violence was the revolution itself,” Schama states in the opening pages.

Simon Schama’s work is that of not only an expert, but so devoted to his subject and guided by the opinions and ideas of the day in the streets of Paris, the reader may feel she or he is experiencing revolutionary climate in the moment, with more than enough details, so much so, that I have returned to this magisterial work to read certain aspects of this “full- blooded” narrative with a different view.

Reading this book can be dizzying and enlightening. Peering into the late 18th century France through Schama’s eyes feels as if one is looking at the people and events as if they were alive. As one reads one cannot help but compare the “revenge of time” with the events of today’s unstable minds and events around the world and within the White House, the Congress and the Supreme Court and agendas at variance with the concept of a democratic republic. More precisely, democracy is flawed.

Schama, knows his subject well and gets inside the fabric of its characters and events of the Revolution and their individual roles and the anger and distrust played out in the theater, the revolutionary exhortations among various groups, the fervor expressed in works of art, the deals made behind closed doors in the halls of justice and the boudoirs of madams, the mocking of the King who saw himself and family as privileged, and the blood that spilled into the streets as chaos arrived without structure. The old regime of benevolent capitalism was dying and about to be pronounced dead. The grievances grew bold and death in the form of suicide and homicide grew as the number of victims mounted in number and terror spread through the streets.

Faith was eventually poured into the concept of liberty and the American Revolution was an inspiration. The threads between the French and Americans were an interweave of passion between leaders of both countries.

This remains an extraordinary narrative of the French Revolution and one wonders if between the American and French Revolutions whether another revolution is on the horizon as the end of our flawed democracy is now imaginable and the move toward authoritarian regimes is occurring as division and mistrust grows.